Sunday, April 04, 2004


Well, on the back of one of my books, my "selected" poems which came out twenty-two years ago, Middle Ground, it says "he writes because he can't not-write." There's something to that.

I am both poet and essayist because the poet and the essayist each write, sometimes, to explain the world to himself, herself. Ask my wife. She will roll her eyes and start to explain how immense is that part of the world I don't understand; or at least I don't understand it in the way that she and many others do.

Dave from Via Negativa brought all this to mind recently, when he left a comment here about a facet of my work, saying "this is indeed an honorable and enviable task for a poet, to validate 'ordinary' people's lives in this way." I've said it before, a lot, and you'll get sick of hearing me say it: I want to write so that aliens a thousand years from now can read what I've written and know who we were.

Near the end of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew:Home, I put it this way:

I think I write so family and neighbors shall not have lived in vain. I want to speak for them, to tell their stories, I want them to be represented in the gallery of humankind. We are not famous yet we should not be forgotten. Though I can make no good argument for why they must be remembered, I live with the conviction that it is important. Why ask why the meadlowlark sings?

And at the conclusion of the title essay of Kissing Poetry's Sister, this is how I put it:

Why? you may wonder, why does one choose to spend himself writing little essays? The simple answer is that I can't behave otherwise. Talent or grace - the gift of writing ought not be squandered. I want to leave behind some image or mark, not for myself alone but for all of us gathered here, as moving as the cave paintings in France, powerful as the images at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta, on the sandstone bluffs there overlooking the Milk River, right next to the surprise of rattlesnakes buzzing at your feet. I want to scratch such marks, eternal as stone, a clear sense of who and what we have been, those of us who have traveled here. I like beauty with dirt still attached to its roots: a primitive yet powerful kind of mark, a moving imaging left for an astonished future.

Left to my own devices, my mind is a couple pounds of pretty unremarkable electric protein. However, when I look outward to observe the world around me, to absorb what I can of the people and the places in the real and physical world, then I have something of which to write. I have to be close to the dirt and goo and stuff of things, right up close, so I can see it, can feel it in my bones, can taste it clear down in my belly. "No ideas but in THINGS," William Carlos Williams said (emphasis mine), and I have to agree. I remember learning that some people think in words and some people think in pictures. Some people (like Dave at Via Negativa) can write about ideas; I cannot. About the best I can do is take my stick and scratch a few figures in the sand; the best I can do is paint some word salad pictures, make some collages out of pieces I've torn from the real world around me. One way is not better than the other way.

I don't read fiction, at least not very often. Ask me why, and I'll tell you life is too short for fiction; and life is too short to get into an argument about my position, so let's not even go there. I have too many true stories I want to tell, stories of real protangonists in the real world. Hard-working and ordinary people who shouldn't be forgotten.

People like Steve Engelhart, the owner of Wisner Rendering in northeastern Nebraska, who does the dirty job of picking up dead animals and hauling them to the rendering plant. I rode with him for a day last year. I've written of that experience in an essay called "Riding With the Local Used Cow Dealer." The piece opens:

I arrived at Steve and Cindy Engelharts' home right on time for breakfast this morning, May 1, Feast of St. Joseph the Workman, 8:00 a.m., in a grey rain. It would be a cool day, which is always good in the rendering business. Dead animals can get awfully ripe in the heat of full sun by the time Steve gets to the farm to pick them up. A dull, grey day helps hold down the stink.

Cindy was making pancakes when I arrived, and "fresh-squeezed eggs," bacon. After we all got introduced, Steve fed the cat, Cindy went on making breakfast, I found a chair at the kitchen table, we talked. Steve is a big bear of a man, you wouldn't want to have to tackle him, or break his tackle. He wears a fierce mustache on a jagged face, he's got enough muscle he could swat me down any time he wished. You could tell he wouldn't, though; he has interesting and interested eyes, this look of curiosity that comes across his face now and again. He likes to talk and has something to say. Cindy runs "Cindy's Sewing" out of the home - there's a sign for her business out by the road. Steve said she drives truck for him, too, when she has to, in the busiest times. The Engelharts rent the place they live on, they have some horses, the landlord feeds cattle across the yard from the house, Steve keeps his rendering trucks parked in front of the garage. After we'd eaten, Steve suited up - coveralls, his tall rubber boots, gloves. It was 8:50 a.m. when we climbed in the truck. The door of the truck is painted with the company's name, Wisner Rendering; and I saw that I'd be riding with "Your Local Used Cow Dealer."

"First, we pick up some pigs," Steve said.

Steve might look like a bear of a man, yes, and you wonder how interested he might be in things beyond the job. Well, you'd be surprised. Certainly he is interested in history; his great-grandfather homesteaded some miles north of where Steve and Cindy now live.

"I really like the people," Steve said as he swept a view of all the Wisner and West Point area with a turn of his head. "They are friendly, godly, they are always willing to help. I can guarantee, if you stop your car along the highway, someone will pull up in five minutes to see if they can help you. It can be an out-of-state car, people will stop. People here are hard-working, they have to work for everything they've got. Life is not easy out here...."

Life is not easy, certainly not the life of a rendering truck driver. This is what I wrote about the smell associated with the work:

Two dead black beef cattle have been pulled out of the feedlots for Steve to pick up. One of them is bloated more than the other one, its legs poking out like the legs of a balloon cow, its bung-hole bulging hugely, its belly bloated in an arc. "I don't know how your stomach is," Steve said by way of warning. "I let the air out of them." He poked the dead animal's great bloated belly with his butcher knife, you could hear the air coming out, a stream of liquid squirted out like a lazy geyser, you could smell it. "That's the smell you don't get used to," Steve said. He lets the air out of most of the bloated animals, he said, "that way I can get more of them in the truck...."

The smell of this work? You have to talk about it, you can't ignore it. The stink accumulates. Imagine a pan of bacon grease left sitting out for a week or two, the house closed up, a mustiness already risen from the basement where clothes have mildewed, mixing with the greasy rancidness. Now add the sickly sweetness that comes up your throat when you've eaten way, way too much candy. Underneath, there's always the smell you smell when you stick a finger to the back of your throat, just before you puke. I think it might help to rest my forearm on my belly when I'm about to gag, but it doesn't help much.

"You breathe out of your mouth a lot," Steve said. "You make sure you know which way the wind is blowing. I always warn everybody what I'm doing before I do it." Steve has seen even old, grizzled farmers vomit at the smell when he stuck an animal before loading it....

Steve makes an honest living, it is necessary and honorable work he does. If you want to be able to eat beef, people like Steve have got to pick up and haul away the dead ones. We don't need for feel bad for Steve - he likes his work as well as any of us like our jobs. So many people get on a plane in New York and fly to Los Angeles, or get on a plane in Los Angeles and fly to New York, and never see, never know, never understand what happens here where the heart beats.

I want to write so those folks flying at 35,000 feet will know what the hell we do, and what it means. If I can get their attention, I will hold up my portrait of Steve Engelhart for them to see, and say: "Okay, go ahead, try to show me a better, finer man than Steve, if you can."

Is it important that I do this? Yes. The great wheel turns: we are here; we are dust, blown away. In the turning moment, our lives mean something. I want us to know what our lives mean, what they will have meant when we are gone.

Will the people flying at 35,000 feet care? Will I succeed? I don't know. But I will have tried.

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